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Damian Cruden On ... The Railway Children

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Last summer’s exceptionally successful production of The Railway Children, produced by York Theatre Royal and the National Rail Museum, is returning in 2009 by popular demand. Mike Kenny’s new stage adaptation of E. Nesbitt’s childhood classic will once again be held on-site at the National Rail Museum. One of the stars of York Theatre Royal’s production of is Stirling Single, the glistening green, black and gold 66 tonne steam locomotive, which was built in 1870.

The question may well be asked, is this re-staging anything more than a cunning excuse for a second round of shameless trainspotting? Speaking to Damian Cruden, Artistic Director at York Theatre Royal, and director of The Railway Children, it becomes clear that the motives for the production’s revival are a touch deeper than that:

“It was such a popular event last year that we felt it would be well worth repeating the project, and there was a general consensus that it was something people would be happy to see again.”

With well over 24,000 people attending the production last year, its popularity is proven. Indeed, the local press received several letters calling for the production to be re-staged, and as Damian explains, York Theatre Royal were happy to oblige.

"It’s very much a re-creating of the original production, there were a couple of issues raised last year, that because of their technical nature we were able to sort out with a few changes – so for example the air conditioning will be better this year.”

Bar two actors, the cast is the same this year, with a pregnancy and a previous commitment paving the way for two additions to the company: Kali Peacock as Mrs Perks and pantomime regular Martin Barrass as the station master Mr Perks.

The company have been rehearsing on site for a few weeks now, and according to Damian, the ‘get-in’ is “quite a big process... and with lots of moving elements in the piece”, it becomes a huge operation.

Family tickets are available for the York Theatre Royal’s production, and the family friendly nature of countless past productions of E. Nesbitt’s novel lends it a certain precedent as a children’s theatre piece. It almost begs the question, is The Railway Children children’s theatre that adults can enjoy, or adult theatre that children will ‘get’? Damian’s take on this moves a step away from the pigeonholing of the production, and theatre pieces in general:

“We have a very British desire to put everything in boxes, which is frustrating at times: ‘this is children’s theatre, that’s adult theatre, that’s family theatre, that’s physical theatre’... there are all these labels that we like to attach so dearly to things, that allow us to feel as if we know what something is. Which in a strange kind of way is stopping us from being surprised by anything.”

Damian believes that The Railway Children moves past these restrictive confines, and can delight audience members of any age or nature:

“I think you can come to the play if you’re 80, on your own, and enjoy it, and you can come if you’re ten, on your own, and enjoy it. The story is such that its sensibility will appeal to anyone.”

It is undoubtedly true that a great part of the play’s popularity is in its ability to appeal to a wide audience. Damian’s personal interaction with the piece is through his own experiences as part of a family:

“As a father of a daughter I have a relationship which is, as in the play, about being a father to a daughter, and I would imagine that others have different points of connection to it.

“I often think when I see a lot of children’s theatre, that it’s superior to what we see as ‘adult’ theatre in many ways, and that if we watched a lot more, we’d be more imaginative. And sharing stories with our children is probably something we don’t do enough of, because that shared experience which you have across generations, rather than always at peer level, is an important dynamic which you need. It allows you to share something that perhaps otherwise you don’t get the opportunity to do.”

The Railway Children is notable as a tale that under the surface of childhood japes and period-drama nostalgia, bubbles with political intrigue. On the handling of this darker subject matter in the play, Damian points out,

“You can’t really avoid it, it’s the central tenet of the play: that the father’s been imprisoned for a trumped up charge, and taken away without any sort of representation at that time... Then there’s the Russian who’s running away from conscription to the army and political imprisonment. In fact really, the whole play’s about refugees, the children become refugees, and it’s about innocence, being part of the power of resistance; and about an adult world which chooses to avoid confronting the issues which are clearly there, and that a child like Bobbie determines that she will question.”

It is surely fair to say that with this even representation of the world’s issues, mingled with the charm of a wide-range of characters of all ages and relationships and the delight of real-life steam energy, is sure to drive the production to success once more. Despite its previous performance, and the temptation there would be to rely upon the popularity of the 2008 performances and the work put in for that last run, Damian’s great emphasis on how “fresh” the various aspects of The Railway Children are, suggests that this re-staging is, rather than a resurrection, a reincarnation.

- Damian Cruden was talking to Vicky Ellis

The Railway Children is at the National Rail Museum (with York Theatre Royal) from 23 July to 5 September


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